Recording an Audio Book to Improve Language Competency

Welcome to another episode of the Northwestern Digital Learning Podcast, where each month we highlight an example of innovative teaching and learning across campus. I'm Kelly Roark, your guest host for this episode. 

My group, Teaching & Learning Technologies, has developed a program called Educational Technology Teaching Fellows (or ETTF) and I was lucky enough to be assigned as a consultant to Lindsay Eufusia, a guest lecturer of Italian in the French and Italian department. Fellows in the program enter with a project involving a technology they haven't used before and they meet with their consultants throughout the school year. As consultants, my colleagues and I provide guidance and advice regarding the many tools that are available to instructors and students. Lindsay had so much enthusiasm for teaching and a great idea to improve students’ pronunciation in her second-year Italian course. I really enjoyed working with her this year. 


LINDSAY Eufusia: It came to me several years ago and I just never had the means to bring it to life, in part from my own technological in-expertise and in part just not having necessarily all the all the tools together, let's say. So, when I heard about the Educational Technology Teaching Fellows program it was perfect timing because this was a project I've been wanting to develop and not been able to. Not only from the technology aspect but from the support and resource aspect, of the members of the digital learning group, and all the assistance and that I was able to get from you guys, especially you, Kelly, in terms of working out the technological details and thinking through how to develop the project and structure it. You obviously, with your expertise, had a lot more insight into what goes into digital projects than I did. Through your assistance, we were able to work out a lot of the kinks ahead of time.  

KELLY: Tell us about the idea.  

LINDSAY: What I was looking for was some way for students to be able to speak at length. In the classroom setting they usually don't get that much time to speak. The classes are 50 minutes long and we have 10 students, even if you give them all an equal share - that's five minutes. Rarely do you have an entire class where you're allowed to do that. You usually have other material you need to get through. I wanted them also to be able to listen to themselves more attentively, so not just speak but be able to kind of hear back what they were saying, and ideally self-correct, and notice their errors. There is this radio program on Italian radio, Rai 3, a program that's called Ad Alta Voce which means “Aloud”, and in this program professional Italian actors read aloud works of literature. And I thought it's a great structure for students because they're reading from a written text, they don't have to worry about linguistic accuracy. They're not writing the content, they're reading. Reading aloud is such a good exercise for pronunciation. It was a way to provide them with content they don't have to worry about. They read it aloud and record it, and the idea being that working together they would ultimately create an audio book, a complete audio book, and have, at the end of this digital project that they created collectively, that they could leave class with, as well - I really like it when students and the class with something tangible, even though it's digital - that they've created over the term.  

KELLY: What did you decide to have them read? 

LINDSAY: We decided to have them read, the other professor that I did this with who's the director of the language, Italian language program, Paolo Morgavi - she wanted to have the students read over the course of the term, the novel Io e Te which is Me and You by Niccolò Ammaniti.  It's a brief novel, it's about 100 pages long, and we read basically a chapter a week.  

KELLY: So between you and Paola, your students read the whole book? 

LINDSAY: Yeah they did. I think in total we had 22 students, 10 in my class and 12 in hers. We were able to break the pages up, everyone did two recordings. Each student, in the grand total, read somewhere between three and five pages, I think. Not all at once. Over the course of the whole book we've done, with all the students, we've done the whole book. There's a prologue and an epilogue to the novel, I read the prologue, and Paolo read the epilogue.  

KELLY:  I lead a workshop for the 102 Italian students on how to use Garage Band for their recordings.  

LINDSAY: The workshop was fantastic especially for me, but also I know because the students that were there produced better recordings. The students that did not come were the ones that had some major technological issues. The workshop was fantastic and it really is the simplest way to go about it. It allows you to edit, allows you to include music easily.  Once you go you realize it's not nearly as daunting as it might seem if you haven't done it before.  

KELLY: Let's listen to a short clip from one of the students. This is Susanna McCollum reading from Io e Te. 

Susanna MCCOLLUM: [Reads in Italian] 

Kelly:  There's some nice music playing underneath her voice and it sounded very professional. Did you guide them on what type of music they could use for continuity in the music or could they choose whatever they wanted? 

LINDSAY There was that was – thanks to you, again, I was so grateful for all of your experience with this - I had wanted to kind of work in music just because I think it adds a nice level of, like you said professionalism and a finished sound - but didn't know how crucial it was and you, because of your experience, really said that it does make a big difference and I noticed in the sort of sample recordings I did myself those with music just sound better - they are more pleasing to listen to and they just sound more complete and professional. And then, again through your expertise and experience, you turned me on to some copyright-free instrumental music that I looked through and sort of picked out a sampling of about maybe 10 to 12 tracks that I thought would be suitable and would sort of fit with the tone of the book would be nice to have some consistency throughout.  

KELLY: After the students finished their recordings they submitted it to you in Canvas? As an Assignment? 

LINDSAY:  Right. Yes, exactly. We created an assignment. And again, with your guidance, I created a rubric ahead of time so they knew what they were being graded on, which we built into the assignment on Canvas. So it was really really easy. They uploaded their file, and only were we were able to highlight the exact moment the word for the word in question, but we were able to include an audio comment in which we modeled the pronunciation for the students as well.  

KELLY: Were there any surprises that came out in the course of this assignment? 

LINDSAY: Some students did better than I would have expected, which was nice because it just means too that those students who maybe have a little more trouble speaking in class got the chance to speak at length and the fact that they did so well tells me that when they are less concerned about grammatical accuracy and things like that that, they really are able to say and do a lot more than you might notice in the classroom setting. There are different...different parameters in terms of this kind of assignment that you don't often get because in written work it's often broken up. You know they're inserting a verb in a sentence or maybe they're writing a paragraph but it's just you don't get to this kind of feedback from the students and having them do this kind of linguistic production is not something that's easily replicated in the classroom. They just don't have the time to do it. Certainly not for everybody every day. It was a nice surprise to see that some students who maybe I would have expected to have more trouble with it did quite well.  

Some of the students spoke with more emotion and expression than I expected. Not because they're not capable of it but I just thought they might be shyer.  

KELLY: Let's listen to another student, Steele Kowalczyk, who's a great example of a student who really brought his reading to life, even the special voices for the characters. Even if you don't understand Italian and you'll hear what I mean.  

STEELE KOWALCZYK: [Reads in Italian].  

LINDSAY: We wanted them to do that as much as possible to really understand the intonation and tone in the text itself and express that, and they really did, they really stepped up.  

KELLY: Lindsay, what would you change the next time you do this project? 

LINDSAY: So, it would be great to have student feedback worked in along the way and, if possible, to do something, maybe something where they even recorded together, or a certain section, so that there's more collaboration. I think they would actually enjoy that as well because, you know, over the course of the class you they end up working in groups or pairs a lot, when they find people that they work well with together and I think that they would have - that thing where they really stepped up with the acting - I think it would more alive if they were doing it together.  

KELLY: There are a lot of benefits to a project like this, aside from improving pronunciation  

LINDSAY: The thing I like about students walking away with something tangible is that they could reuse it down the line. We have a lot of students that are voice majors or who are theatre majors, or students who want to go on to study abroad program, or even work in Italy. Who knows?  

KELLY: Yeah! 

LINDSAY: The idea is that they have it on hand if they ever need it.  

KELLY: Yeah. 

LINDSAY: It could prove more useful just than a "class assignment". The students who maybe don't do much speaking in class, for whatever reason, that it really gives them that opportunity. From week to week, as we read the chapters, they would do in-class discussion as well, and the students I think who may be... might have been more reluctant to speak in class had something to speak about. You know it kind of gave them that starting point. So it worked out really well.  

KELLY: Audio assignments have obvious advantages for foreign language classes but they can easily apply across disciplines. For example, imagine an assignment where a pair of students create a recording explaining a complex theory together.  If you'd like to discuss ideas reach out to the Teaching and Learning Technologies group and we'll be happy to brainstorm with you.  


Music via: BenSound, royalty free music